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Saturday, March 20, 2010

10 Things You Need to Survive a Disaster

Disasters come in many shapes and sizes. Just this past week I have helped people deal with a death in the family, a completely unexpected divorce, a kid in the trauma center, and the loss of a job. Aside from the big disasters such as earthquakes, winter storms, or floods that make the evening news, the aforementioned things are some of the most common disasters that the average person will face in their lifetime.
Unfortunately, the people who come to me for help are usually missing one (or many) of the following things, much to their detriment. Here's what you need to survive a disaster:
  1. An emergency fund. The bigger the better. No matter what type of disaster you are facing, having money can often smooth the way for you whether you need to get a hotel room for a few days, hire a pit bull of a lawyer, pay a doctor bill, or just fill up the gas tank and drive away from a bad situation.
  2. Be debt free. When you are constrained by debt, it is like you are being suffocated and locked up in a strait jacket all at the same time. Your options are severely limited (like you can't pick up and move away from an abusive situation) because you are worried about paying your bills. You can't take six months off work to sit with your child in the trauma center because...yep, you need to pay your bills. How much more free and easy would your life be if you had absolutely ZERO debt? How much better would you be able to react to a quickly changing situation if you had ZERO debt?
  3. A variety of options for making money. Right next to having money in savings and having no debt, is having ways to make more money that don't require your presence at a particular desk each weekday morning at 8am. When your life is in turmoil, schedules usually go out the window. You may need to move, you may need to pull the blankets over your head and not get out of bed for a week, you may need to focus on things like picking out caskets...all of these things are in direct opposition to keeping up appearances at work. If you have a range of ways to make money, particularly a few that are fairly automated and can keep a steady stream of income coming in, no matter how small, you will be in a much more flexible position to deal with the occasional disaster.
  4. A fairly comprehensive "BOB". Sometimes you gotta get out of dodge. You may be hiding out from a psycho ex in an unnamed hotel, you may be racing to follow the ambulance to the hospital for an undetermined length of stay, you may be tossed out of your home by the sheriff. In all cases, it is quite possible to survive for an extended period with just the stuff you can carry in a backpack. The problem is that people often don't have a BOB they can grab in a minute's time complete with the items they would need to set up a home away from home. Put one of these together now.
  5. Knowledge. Obviously you can't be well versed in everything from traumatic brain injury to the vagaries of spousal support or probate, but no matter what disastrous situation you find yourself in, you need to be able to get the knowledge that you need, ASAP, in order to make some good decisions on your own behalf. Practice now, when you aren't facing a life threatening situation, to gather the knowledge you need to fix various small problems in your life. What resources can you access immediately (Google? Ask Metafilter?), what resources are available in your community (the legal aid clinic? the local librarian?), what people do you know (your congressman? a friend of a friend who is an attorney?). It is not important whether you have the knowledge now, but it is most important that you know how to gather the knowledge that you need, when you need it.
  6. People to help you out. In a crisis, you may need to depend on yourself immediately, but eventually you will need to depend on other people as well. Who are these people? Do you have people you can count on for a place to hide out, a car to borrow, a ride to the airport, a cash loan no questions asked...?
  7. A range of skills. Obviously if you aren't a surgeon, no one would expect you have have surgical expertise no matter how useful such skills may be during a crisis, however, having a wide range of general skills can be of the utmost usefulness during a crisis. Can you do basic car repair? If you can't change a tire in the dark, along side a road, on whatever car you happen to be driving, you probably should learn this skill. If you have absolutely no job skills and are relying on someone else for everything in your life from your home to your food to your weekly manicure, you need to develop some job skills NOW. Can you shelter your family outside, in the winter, in the snow? Earthquakes can happen at the most inopportune time and most often after such a large disaster, you will be on your own for a while until shelters can be set up (if the disaster isn't very wide spread. If it is you may be SOL and really on your own). Basic camping skills--setting up a camp, cooking over a fire, purifying water--are basic skills that anyone can learn with a little practice.
  8. An attitude of perseverance. A good attitude is nice to have but in really crappy situations, no one will expect you to be happy or even pleasant. You do need, however, an attitude of perseverance that will help you weather any disaster. You are entitled to a mini meltdown at the beginning but after that you need to be able to pull yourself together and get things done no matter how horrible the situation (you will be entitled to a larger meltdown after everything is done and you can take a breath).
  9. A "plan b". Sometimes you cannot change a situation or make things go back to the way they have always been. You cannot make a spouse stay married to you if they refuse to do so. You cannot bring back someone who has died. You cannot "undo" a flood that ruined your home or a tsunami that carried away your village. In these cases you need a "plan b". People don't like to think about the worst happening because it is rather unpleasant to think about bad things that could happen to you, but every once in a while let your mind wander to the "what ifs". What if your spouse packed up and left tomorrow? What if you went to work tomorrow and the doors were padlocked and you had no more job? What if your house burned down next week? Like I said, unpleasant thoughts, but by running through some scenarios of bad things that could happen, you will give your mind a bit of exercise creating "plan b" scenarios.
  10. Faith. Some people are Catholic while others are atheist. One things that I have seen carry people through the worst of times is a faith of some sort. Whether they think God has a plan, or all things eventually work out for the better, having some sort of faith in something other than yourself seems to make the worst a bit more palatable.